For a period during the 1990s, I visited a psychoanalyst several times a week. Lying on the couch, I would find myself examining the spines of the books on his shelves for clues to the mysterious process we were engaged in. Just in line with the toe of my right shoe was a volume with a title so bizarre that I eventually felt obliged to track it down and read it. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind is the sole published work by Julian Jaynes. Its striking but unverifiable argument is that our prehistoric ancestors didn’t possess the kind of consciousness that we consider normal – the sense of a unitary I managing competing desires. Instead they heard voices emanating from the different hemispheres of their brains. Out of these auditory hallucinations grew what we think of as our sense of self. The intrusive commands that invade the mind of a schizophrenic, Jaynes suggested, are a throwback to the divided consciousness of our ancestors.
What is tantalising about Jaynes’s ideas is that they suggest consciousness is not a stable part of our human identity. Like jaw shape or gait, it evolved over time, so there may be or could have been multiple varieties of it – perhaps some that are more robust, more accurate, more ethically refined. Or, as a character in Sebastian Faulks’s new novel puts it: “It was only molecular chance that had led to the existence of modern humans … it could have been subtly otherwise, with a similar but saner and more integrated creature evolving from the same raw material.”
One of the threads in Faulks’s large and diverse body of work is an interest in the nature of consciousness, in finding the slippery point where the human self resides. He is clearly aware of Jaynes’s ideas, having explored the theory of bicameralism in Human Traces. A Possible Life also delved into the enigma of consciousness, and at the heart of his latest novel, The Seventh Son, is a Promethean experiment to create a human being with a mind instructively different from those of this planet’s other inhabitants.
The essence of the story is this: a cash-strapped academic called Talissa Adam agrees to become a surrogate mother for a childless English couple, Mary and Alaric. The procedure takes place at an institute run by rogue Silicon Valley tycoon Lukas Parn, a man not dissimilar to Elon Musk but minus the cage fighting and with an interest in the human genome rather than space exploration. At a key moment in the process, Lukas’s employees intervene in such a way that the child Talissa bears – whom Mary and Alaric name Seth – will grow up to be markedly different from other people.
The difficulty with discussing this experiment in detail is that the plot of the novel rests on a twist that it would be a pity to reveal. However, who Seth really is, how he differs from the rest of us, what his consciousness consists of and how he wrestles with the loneliness of being cognitively unique are the questions at the core of the book.
Faulks is an enviably graceful and economical writer. The early chapters of the book rip along with clarity and elegance. He conjures up the various worlds, brings the central characters vividly to life and keeps the story moving intriguingly forward.
As a speculative novel, set in the not-too-distant future, this excursion into Michael Crichton territory is a departure for Faulks. But given his résumé and virtuoso talent as a pasticher, who has contributed to the James Bond and PG Wodehouse canons and written a Dickensian novel about the banking crisis, A Week in December, you’d back him to succeed in any genre he chose.
However, at the end of this very melancholy novel, I couldn’t help thinking there was something bicameral about the book itself. On the one hand, there is the familiar pleasure of reading Faulks, the lusty observer of human biodiversity, who writes so well about work and sex and relationships, about messy interactions that are so rarely definitive, about individual complexity, loss and love.
And on the other hand, working alongside him, there is a brainy theoretician who includes long expository sections about human evolution, prehistoric anthropology and the nature of consciousness. It felt to me like this second, highly schematic intelligence overdetermined the shape of the book. It’s surely an odd – and unnecessary – coincidence that Talissa’s area of academic expertise is so precisely matched to the predicament of her surrogate child. The sad fate of her lover, Felix, seems engineered to permit reflections about schizophrenia and its roots in the evolution of human consciousness. These may just be peas under the mattress, but they contribute to a feeling that a conscious notion of theme has blocked the organic growth of the story and that The Seventh Son is at times a work of nonfiction masquerading as a novel.
The book’s severest lack is at what should be its centre: the consciousness of Seth himself. The precise essence of his mind never becomes clear. He’s a bit baffled, a bit persecuted, a bit sad, but you’re never persuaded that he’s qualitatively extraordinary. Even visually, he doesn’t live with much vividness. Of course there’s necessarily something unknowable about him. But I couldn’t help thinking of Daniel Keyes’s Flowers for Algernon or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, where first-person narration persuades you briefly that you are seeing the world through vertiginously different eyes.
Perhaps some of the problems are down to the way the story is constructed. With the exception of the devious Lukas Parn, the novel’s other characters are gradually divested of agency: they each have to live with the consequences of a terrible experiment that has been inflicted on them and whose nature is revealed to them, I think, too neatly and with too little struggle. They are all victims of circumstance, a truth brought home finally by the minor-key ending, a melancholy mirror image of the affirmative closing scenes of Faulks’s bestselling Birdsong. It lands with a nihilistic heaviness that makes you long for some joie de vivre.
• The Seventh Son by Sebastian Faulks is published by Hutchinson Heinemann (£22). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.